INTERVIEW / Page, the Oracle: Jimmy Page turns 50 on Sunday. Giles Smith talked to him about acid, Led Zeppelin and the dreaded 'Stairway'

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Jimmy Page is delivered to the door of his record company in Baker Street, London, by his driver, Lionel. He is wearing jeans and a bomber jacket - Lionel, that is. Page is wearing a long black overcoat, a dark and seriously swish suit and a black shirt with a complicated collar and fashionable buttons. This is the guitarist who, during the 1970s, along with his fellow-members in the group Led Zeppelin, virtually patented hotel-trashing and on-tour mayhem. So you're not quite ready for the trace of David Niven in the voice, the fastidious politeness. 'So sorry I'm late,' he says, entering almost bang on time.

Page will be 50 on Sunday, though you would be hard pressed to read that in his unscored face and his lavish hair. Led Zeppelin gave out in 1980 when, after a night of drinking, their drummer, John Bonham, choked to death in his sleep at Page's house in Windsor. Since then, Page has knocked about in large homes in Berkshire and Hampshire; he's jammed with Aerosmith; he's fiddled with another band called the Firm; he's released a solo record (1986's Outrider) and collaborated with the even hairier David Coverdale. But you get the impression that he has never stopped thinking about Led Zeppelin - what they did, what they were. 'Not that I would put it on regularly. But every now and again I would think it would be good to hear some of the old stuff. And it always held up.'

They were the archetypal heavy rock band (drums, bass, guitar and a skinny guy with a high voice), who threw in a bit of folk for good measure. Would-be guitar heroes liked the way Page could manage the chunky riffs and the quick-fingered solo stuff. Also, he flaunted his tiny torso, draped himself in silk scarves and could beat the strings about with a violin bow. This seemed enviable at the time. All along, though, Page was running a secret life as the man who played boffin back in the studio, someone with a train-spotter's eye for detail.

'I used to check all the test-pressings of our records as they returned from around the world,' he says with some enthusiasm. 'We were a couple of albums down the line when I discovered the reason classical records sounded so much better than pop or rock was that they'd changed the acid that they dipped the lacquer into. Once I'd discovered that, then all the Led Zeppelin albums had to have the new acid treatment.'

When compact discs were introduced, Led Zepellin's record label, Atlantic, exercised its contractual right to exploit the old material on the new format. Page claims that the label wasn't fussy about the transfer process. This caused him some agony. His voice rises and becomes thin with dismay: 'On Houses of the Holy, side two of the tape that they employed, there was a sizzle. I was getting complaints from Zeppelin fans . . .'

Hence the project that has occupied him for the last couple of years. Going back to the original tapes where possible, Page has worked his way through the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue, re-mastering the music for CD in the hope of doing some justice to the impact of the vinyl originals. In 1992, he put out a selection in a four-CD box. 'Real Zeppelin diehards were used to their vinyl and so they were familiar with the running orders. After 'Song Remains the Same', they'd be hearing the first chord of 'Rainsong' before it even appeared. Would they go along with my new running order?'

Yes they would. In September last year, a double CD came out bearing the things left off the four- pack. Last November, the nine studio albums appeared, sumptuously re-packaged, racked in a luxury container and all in all given the kind of treatment normally reserved for superior editions of Beatrix Potter. And finally this year, the albums will start emerging individually - your first chance to acquire a remastered CD-version of Led Zep IV in its original running order, without investing a sum in triple figures.

'Re-mastering is a lengthy process, so I had time to reflect. There were times when I missed John Bonham terribly. Time and again, you would be listening and thinking what an incredible talent he was. It's beyond rock'n'roll - it's into another area altogether. Powerful and purely from the wrist. There was no banging away. I've never heard so much volume out of drums. The classic drum sample, the one that's been stolen over and over, from 'When the Levee Breaks', was actually recorded with just one stereo microphone up on a second landing pointing down. That's to do with the man and his understanding of the drums, knowing how to tune them properly, and the attack that he had. And the control, because it wasn't all loud.'

We flick through the pictures in the boxed set's booklet, and Page pauses at one taken in the back of a limo, somewhere in America, somewhere in the 1970s. While the singer Robert Plant dozes in one of the car's comfortable corners, Bonham slumps in another, staring frozen-faced through the window. He looks like a man too tired to sleep. 'He used to get so homesick,' Page says quietly. 'Terribly homesick, poor chap.'

Page first saw Bonham play in 1968 when the guitarist was recruiting a band to follow the Yardbirds. And he first heard Robert Plant sing in 'a teacher training college in Bromsgrove. I think he was tarmac-ing at the time. So I rescued him.' Success came fast in America. 'Every time we went back there, more people wanted to see us and the gigs got bigger and bigger. It was supply and demand. The one I felt really uncomfortable about was the Pontiac Superdome - 70,000 people indoors in an airlock. Bit by bit, the set increased to three-and-a- half hours. We were doing 45-minute versions of 'Dazed and Confused'.'

And this was the time when things went wild.

'Well, let's say we started to make life easier for ourselves. We had suites instead of sharing rooms the way we did on our first tour. And we had a private plane and things like that to make life easier. But all in all, that got to be the norm. A three-and-a- half hour set takes a lot out of you.'

So it didn't feel unnecessary?

'Not at all. It was the only way to do it. If you're doing that size of show, you can't start flying chartered airlines, because you want to get off stage and be in your hotel room. So basically the quickest form of transport is a private plane.'

Frankly, Zeppelin could have invested in an entire airforce on the profits of one song alone - the dreaded 'Stairway to Heaven', eight minutes of tremulous doggerel which Page has never lost faith in. 'I knew it was really good because we'd had a bit of difficulty getting it together. Not a lot, but a bit. Because it was a totally different structure to anything that had been around before. But we embarked on a tour of the States, before the fourth album was out on the shelves. And we played at the Forum in Los Angeles and we'd included 'Stairway' in the set. At the end, about a third of the audience stood up and gave us a standing ovation, and I thought, 'Actually, this may be a better number than I imagined.'

'Maybe Robert and I differ on this one: someone told me the other day that he said he'd forgotten what the whole thing was about, the gist of it. Which I thought was pretty strange for him to say at this point in time. Or at any point in time. From my point of view, it was a summing up of certain elements of the band - the acoustic side, the bringing the drums in much later, having this thing which crescendoed, which was actually speeding up at the same time. All deliberate. And Robert's lyrics were incredible, the ambiguity. We shouldn't go into that because people have their interpretations of what it's about. If Robert's forgotten, then let's leave it to everyone else's interpretations.'

What about the Jimmy Page interpretation?

'No, no. I'll leave it at that, I think.' And he smiles decorously.

At 50, Page now qualifies - whether he likes it or not - for the generalised respect that these days settles over rock's elders. Nobody is out to get him any more. He might not have relied on that in the late 1970s when punk rock parked its tank on his lawn. Punk sometimes seemed conceived specifically as a revolt against Led Zeppelin - their distance, their indulgence. As a member of the Clash said at the time: 'I don't even have to listen to their music. Just looking at one of their album covers makes me want to vomit.'

But somehow the nausea passed. Black Americans started sampling the noise of Bonham's drum kit for hip hop records. And maybe the rift was never as deep as it seemed. 'The Sex Pistols were one of the ones that were knocking us,' Page says, 'and Johnny Rotten's next band, PiL, attempted 'Kashmir', for heaven's sake. At the time, we went to see the Damned, who actually weren't quite so vocal about kicking the dinosaurs as some of the others. But I remember the drummer coming up and saying, 'You know, I go home every night and play 'Stairway' . . .' '

(Photograph omitted)